Outdoor Shade: What is an Awning Used For?

Smart Reasons to Use Outdoor Awnings

striped awning
A blue and white striped awning. Realtor.com

An awning is a type of supplemental roof or cover that helps control intense sun exposure and heat that occurs both indoors and outdoors. Awnings can be stationary or retractable and made of materials like aluminum, cloth, vinyl, or wood. They also cut down on home energy costs by decreasing the need for air conditioning.

Old vs New

Remember the Barry Levinson film, Tin Men? Set in Baltimore in the 1950s, Danny DeVito was a door-to-door salesman who sold aluminum siding and awnings.

Popular during that era, aluminum awnings had vertical or horizontal slats that could match a house or be designed to create stripes. Competition was tight and salesmen had elaborate pitches for selling these products to post-war housewives. While you'll have to see the film to find out if there's more to it than that, let's just say that awnings have come a long way since that era.

What's the appeal? Basically, they provide a ceiling or shade, like any outdoor roof. The difference is that they are retractable and that retractability has advanced through the years.

Retractable awnings also help protect indoor furniture, upholstery, and artwork from fading. With the touch of a button, switch or remote control, an awning moves from partial to full protection. How? Not by magic, as the Danny DeVito-type salesmen of the 1950s might have had a few housewives believe. Internal wiring and a motor tubular framing make that awning retract or extend, depending on your preference.

A Resurgence

Today's awning's usually have fixed frames or lateral arms - not a whole lot different than a century ago. Fixed-frame styles are made of aluminum or lightweight galvanized or zinc-coated steel pipes, and frames are attached to facades with clamps, clips, or other hardware. 

Awning Fabrics

While most are solid colors or patterns, awnings are available in various fabrics and styles to complement the architecture of your home.

For those who desire their awnings to stand out, choose bright or contrasting tones to your house's exterior. If you lean toward subtlety or don't want the awnings to be a focal point, consider choosing colors that blend in with the colors of your house, its trim or accents. Awning extras like contrasting trim, scallops, keyhole valences and tassels can brighten up an otherwise-drab exterior.

Historic awning coverings can be replicated using dyed acrylics and acrylic-coated polyester-cotton blended fabrics. Resembling traditional canvas, these newer materials provide more strength and durability. Since they are woven (rather than colors and stripes painted on the surface), these fabrics are strong and let light to filter through while blocking heat. They also dry quickly, reduce mildew, and contain a UV inhibitor. 

Styles and Types

Not every awning is made alike, and each application is different. Maybe you want to shade a deck that gets intense sun at the end of the day, just as you're winding down and firing up the grill. Or, you might want awnings over windows or doors that generate extreme heat in the morning hours, requiring the air conditioner to operate nearly all day.

Types include:

  • Patio or deck cover shade cloths or sails
  • Retractable freestanding awnings
  • Retractable side arm/drop-arm awnings
  • Retractable canopy awnings
  • Retractable vertical drop awnings
  • Retractable patio cover systems
  • Window awnings
  • Deck awnings
  • Motorized retractable awnings 

Extras

Like anything, there are your basic awnings, and then the models with all the bells and whistles. You can get awnings that can resist rain, winds, a certain amount of snow, and even hurricanes. Retractable styles can be operated manually with a chord or motorized, with a radio, non-radio, or torque-sensing motor. Other options include MP3 speakers, heaters, sensors and timing controls.

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